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Labouring the point

Labouring the point

After Labour’s shock defeat in 2007, Margaret Curran and Sarah Boyack asked me to meet them for a coffee to pick over the whys and wherefores of why they’d lost and what to do. I spent much of that conversation being chastised for how critical I had been of the party and not what they could do to kickstart change.

After Labour’s shock defeat in 2011, the newly-elected MSP, Neil Findlay, made a very welcome point of getting in touch to ask how the party could build bridges, reconnect and rebuild.

And a few months later, in what was beginning to feel like political Groundhog Day, Jim Murphy and I sat down ahead of him presenting to the party his root-and-branch review designed to get Scottish Labour winning Scottish parliamentary elections again. 

These conversations of mine have been replayed time and time again with other notable Labour politicians but seven years later and with a clear pattern emerging we are where we are: four leaders gone, two Holyrood elections lost, a referendum won and a party that, despite all its overtures about wanting to listen and wanting to learn, still doesn’t look like a credible option for government. What’s gone wrong with Scottish Labour?

When Labour so spectacularly lost the election in May 2011, allowing the SNP to not only win a second term in government but to also win as a majority government, Labour knew it had some soul searching to do. 

The party had never really recovered from the 2007 election which was won by the SNP by the narrowest of margins allowing the party to form Holyrood’s first minority government. 

Then, Labour undoubtedly believed the result was rogue and that the electorate would come to its senses. So convinced was it that normal service would simply be resumed by 2011 – or even sooner – that it failed to implement any real change and in May of that year, the assumption that they would be back in power was proved to be wrong.

Murphy is now being billed as the frontrunner in a leadership contest that has patronisingly tagged Findlay as the left-winger and Boyack as the surprise outrider

In 2007 there was a typical party response to a lost election – the leader, Jack McConnell, resigned. Wendy Alexander took over at the helm for a short and fairly bruising time and the Labour benches were riven with rivalry, blame and even grief. It presented as a pretty sad spectacle. A party permanently seen licking its wounds. A lacklustre leadership contest resulted in Iain Gray being elected but despite his clear abilities, he too failed to shine and some disastrous moves, like the opposition to minimum pricing on alcohol, failing to vote in favour of a budget and a constant wailing of bitterness and negativity, managed to give the impression of a party way out of step with a nation.

But then the Scottish Labour vote came out in 2010 and helped the party to not lose the general election as badly as it could have done. There was some rejoicing and a rekindled belief that the 2011 election would save the day. But it was a hope built on sand.

There was some limited recognition of the deeper malaise. Gray tried to stamp his authority, stressing he was in charge of Scotland and the new UK leader, Ed Miliband, appeared to fully support him, or at least nodded vacantly at the right times. 

The party entered the election campaign buoyed by high poll rankings giving it a clear lead and it breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe this time…

But with no serious structural change since defeat in 2007 and faced with an election campaign waged by the SNP based on a clear vision, a strong team and a good record in government, Labour was simply outflanked.

And this time the loss was catastrophic. The party didn’t just lose on the constituency vote but also on the list and because it had changed the rules to ensure its candidates couldn’t stand on both – a move fully supported by Gray – it unwittingly lost much of its old guard. Experienced politicians like Andy Kerr, Charlie Gordon, Frank McAveety and Tom McCabe were out. (Imagine how different today’s leadership campaign would be if they were still in.) Gray was lucky to hang on to his own seat and so the blame game began. Again.

Gray announced he would step down as leader and at the same time, Jim Murphy, MP for East Renfrewshire, former Secretary of State for Scotland, and then shadow defence minister, was beating a path to Miliband’s door to volunteer his services to conduct a post-mortem.

Notwithstanding the obvious, that Murphy was as culpable as any other Scottish Labour politician for the lack of a good election campaign, Murphy said his review would herald a rebirth of Labour in Scotland and be even more revolutionary than the emergence of New Labour. But it failed to set fire to the heather. And last month’s exit of Johann Lamont as leader only compounded the bloody obvious – the Scottish Labour Party cannot just be Scottish in name. 

Murphy is now being billed as the frontrunner in a leadership contest that has patronisingly tagged Findlay as the left-winger and Boyack as the surprise outrider. Murphy is a slick political operator, which is unsurprising given that politics is the only career he has ever had. But Scotland has a new political landscape since his review in 2011 and even more dramatic contours since the referendum. How he adapts to that will be interesting. Murphy sounds very like 1990s New Labour, a fashion which Scotland never really embraced. He brings with him an entourage of Blairite acolytes, a plethora of football analogies, and a pugnacious style inherited from Westminster which is lazily translated into ‘big political beast’. 

I have always admired Murphy’s ability to manoeuvre. However, wanting to lead a party in Scotland from Westminster in the context of the referendum result and when so many were so quick to rule themselves out rather than in is clearly something to ponder as a career move. 

But more importantly, for any of the leadership contenders, is being honest enough with themselves to accept that changing the leader of a party that hasn’t changed is not a recipe for future success. Labour politicians repeatedly say they’re listening but if my own experience is anything to go by, I suspect they only hear what they want to hear. 

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